Die Missdeutungen des Schlafwandler- und Säuferfalls aus Lockes Abhandlung über die persönliche Indentität

by Jason King

art research and media philosophy

The Magister thesis Die Missdeutungen des Schlafwandler- und Säuferfalls aus Lockes Abhandlung über die persönliche Identität [“The Misreadings of the Sleepwalker- and Drunk-Case from Locke’s Treatise on Personal Identity“] analyses in detail the reception of a single passage from John Locke’s famous treatise on identity and diversity (Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, 1694, chapter 27). The passage in question is section 22, which features the “problem-case” of the sleepwalker and drunk, both who can no longer remember committing the crime for which they are tried in court. Unlike the previous problem-cases of the chapter, whose solutions only affirm the “continuity of consciousness”-criterium of personal identity (“as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought,“ 2.27.9) the sleepwalker- and drunk-case appears to have an aporetic function, rendering the consciousness-criterium void at precisely its most decisive trial – namely, the trial itself, whereby man is societally obligated to pass judgment on the personal identity of other human beings. This aporetic function of the problem-case, as is argued in the thesis, has since the passage’s publication been circumvented by means of (not always intentional) interpretative license. Serving as the impulse to new examination of the passage’s reception was the reoccurring theologically untenable interpretation of its concluding eschatological pronouncement. After Locke not only suggests that “human judicatures” are required to punish the forgetful defendants but also appears to underwrite the decision, he resolves this seeming injustice in the apocalyptic theodicy of the Last Judgment: “But in the great Day, wherein their Secrets of all Hearts shall be laid open, it may be reasonable to think, no one shall be made to answer for what he knows nothing of; but shall receive his Doom, his Conscience accusing or excusing him.“ This sentence has been continually misinterpreted as a subversive, antinomian conception of the Last Judgment, whereby the resurrected human is only liable for the actions they could remember on their deathbed, a misinterpretation stretching from Thomas Becconsall’s polemic against Latitudinarianism (1698) to the conceptualist and post-conceptualist reception of Locke’s identity theory in the 20th century and beyond. Through an analysis of the exegetical strategies used on the passage since its publication, the Magister thesis attempts a critical reception of the sleepwalker-and-drunk problem-case, in order to arrive at an explanation for this rather fantastic theological faux pas. It is argued that the readings largely founder on juridical-technical inexactitude and an ambiguity forced upon the logic of the passage’s language, both of which over time have become standardized in the reception. Though principally hermeneutic in nature, the results of this analysis render certain philosophical-historical theses regarding Locke newly questionable, particularly his profile as an innovative pioneer of the theorizing of self-consciousness.


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